No laboratory in the world stored a coronavirus that could have been engineered into Covid, according to a British zoologist whose organisation funded research at the Chinese site central to the ‘lab leak’ theory.
Once dismissed as a conspiracy theory, the idea that Covid may have been created through experiments has gained huge traction in recent months.
These claims have all centered around the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which was carrying out ‘risky’ studies on coronaviruses in the months before the pandemic began in the same city.
Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, which directed millions of US Government cash to fund experiments at the Chinese lab, has repeatedly dismissed the theory.
He has now, once again, shot it down, saying that there is no way the research conducted at Wuhan could have led to the creation of Covid within its walls.
Pictured: The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) where a number of experts think Covid could have leaked from
British zoologist Dr Peter Daszak, one of the most stringent deniers of the man-made Covid hypothesis with ties to WIV has issued another dismissal of the lab leak theory
Dr Daszak made the comments in response to claims that scientists had dismissed the lab leak theory outright because they feared the link would spark a ban on their own dangerous ‘gain of function’ experiments.
Gain of function is a hugely controversial field of research that can involve purposely manipulating pathogens to make them more dangerous.
In theory, it can help scientists get a head start on developing treatments for viruses that could naturally evolve this way.
But critics of the technique warn that it poses a massive risk to human health — if the pathogens ever escape.
Writing in a letter to the Telegraph, Mr Daszak said: ‘Experiments at WIV involved bat coronaviruses related to the original SARS-CoV, not SARS-CoV-2.
‘There is no evidence that any lab in the world had a virus genetically close enough to SARS-CoV-2 that is could be manipulated to become that virus.’
SARS-CoV-2 is the scientific name of the virus that causes Covid, while SARS-CoV is the name of a closely-related virus commonly referred to as SARS, which itself sparked a serious outbreak in Asia in 2003.
While Dr Daszak said no virus resembling Covid was held in any lab, including WIV, some have highlighted that WIV did hold a bat coronavirus called RaTG13, which is 96.9 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2.
In response to this Dr Daszak said: ‘There’s really no way RaTG13 could have anything to do with SARS-CoV-2.
‘The spike protein and the backbone sequence of the virus are too genetically distinct to make it possible that this virus could have rapidly evolved into SARS-CoV-2 or be manipulated genetically to become SARS-CoV-2.’
He also claimed that experiments conducted by WIV on bat viruses are not gain of function research in the first place because they did not involve pathogens known to be dangerous to humans.
‘The SARS-related research conducted under The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding prior to the pandemic at the WIV only dealt with bat coronaviruses that had never been shown to infect people, let alone cause morbidity and/or mortality in humans, and therefore by definition was not gain-of-function research,’ he said.
However, the defintion of gain of function research varies among the scientific community.
Some, like Dr Daszak above, define it as research that sets out to make pathogens dangerous to humans more infectious or deadly.
But other experts consider any research with even the potential to create deadlier or more infectious viruses as gain of function research, and include the experiments conducted at WIV as such.
The NIH, a US Government organisation, has been found to have helped fund research at the WIV and also been criticised for failing to keep tabs on American-sponsored virus experiments in China.
But other Covid origin theories point to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan (pictured) as being the epicentre of the outbreak. Many of the earliest cases in December 2019 and January 2020 had visited the site, where live animals were sold
The question of whether the global outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market or leaked out of the Wuhan lab just eight miles across the Yangtze River has given rise to fierce debate. Some studies point to a natural spillover at the Huanan wildlife market. Positive swab samples of floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwestern corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbour Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)
Virologist Shi Zheng-li – nicknamed the ‘Bat Lady’ – is pictured in the lab. She hunted down dozens of deadly Covid-like viruses in bat caves and studied them at the WIV
Dr Daszak, who hails from the mining town Dukinfield, on the outskirts of Manchester, has been one of the central, and controversial, figures at the now years long quest for answers about the origin of Covid.
The expert in zoonosis — the spread of viruses from animals to humans — has authored more than 300 scientific papers over his career, which has spanned more than three decades, a career that has also seen him become friendly with Dr Anthony Fauci, former chief medical advisor to the US President.
Dr Daszak has been one of the most stringent deniers of the man-made hypothesis over the course of the pandemic.
He has been accused of orchestrating a behind-the-scenes ‘bullying’ campaign to ensure blame for Covid was directed away from WIV.
This involved allegedly persuading 26 other scientists to sign off on a letter he had written to world-leading scientific journal The Lancet claiming the virus could only have been natural in origin and to suggest otherwise creates ‘fear, rumours, and prejudice’.
The letter was so influential that it cowed most experts into refusing even to consider that the virus could have been man-made.
It also later emerged that Dr Daszak told his fellow signatories in an email that the letter would not be sent under the EcoHealth logo to not make it identifiable as coming from any ‘one organisation’ or ‘person’.
These emails show that he even considered not signing the letter himself, although in the end he did.
He was also accused of not declaring EcoHealth’s, and therefore his own, ties with WIV during investigations into the pandemic.
In January 2021, Dr Daszak joined the World Health Organization (WHO) team sent to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the virus.
The group’s report, published in March 2021, concluded it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that the virus originated in a laboratory.
But he came under fire after it emerged that he had a working relationship with Dr Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the WIV nicknamed ‘Bat Woman’, and one of the very scientists whose work he was tasked with investigating.
EcoHealth Alliance has provided at least $600,000 to WIV where research was carried out.
Dr Daszak has previously defended his connections to WIV during investigations into Covid’s origins, arguing the probe should involve those who know the most about coronaviruses in China.
He also chaired a group of scientists probing Covid’s origins for the medical journal The Lancet but stepped down when his link with Chinese virus research was revealed.
Consensus over how the pandemic began three years ago in Wuhan has slowly started to shift.
While the majority of virologists say the virus had natural origins, a growing number believe it could have been a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
At first, the overwhelming opinion — shared by the world’s leading experts — was that Covid crossed naturally from animals infected with a bat coronavirus.
China has repeatedly denied it was to blame for the outbreak — blaming a wet market in Wuhan as the source of the outbreak and even pointing the finger at the US.
Fuelled by revelations that the likes of Sir Jeremy and Fauci believed the lab leak was legitimate, the hypothesis has gained traction.
China’s secrecy — in not providing vital access to scientists probing the origins and accusations of covering up evidence from the early days of the pandemic by wiping key databases — has only added fuel to the fire.
The truth on how Covid emerged will likely never be known, however.
DID COVID LEAK FROM A WUHAN LAB? THE EVIDENCE FOR AND AGAINST
Evidence for Wuhan lab-leak theory
An article in the respected Science journal on May 14 2021 kick-started the surge in interest for the lab-leak theory.
Some 18 experts wrote in the journal that ‘we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data’.
Later that month, a study by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen claimed it had ‘prima facie evidence of retro-engineering in China’ for a year.
The study included accusations of ‘deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data’ at Chinese labs.
It followed statements from the WHO Director General, US and EU that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve.
Previously, the theory had been dismissed as conspiracy by most experts, partly because of its association with President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden in May 2021 ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.
In December 2021, Harvard scientist Dr Alina Chan told the UK’s Science and Technology Select Committee that it is ‘reasonable’ to believe that Covid was genetically engineered in China.
She also said that the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan two years ago and attempts to sabotage the World Health Organisation’s inquiry into the origins of the pandemic made the lab-leak theory likely.
The head of the World Health Organization insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out — as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.
The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation.
And a senior Government source claimed in June 2022 that the WHO boss privately believes the pandemic kicked off following a leak from a Chinese lab.
In September 2022, leading medical journal the Lancet admitted the virus may have been leaked from a lab, including those in the US.
Evidence against the theory
Most of the scientific community say the virus is most likely of natural origin.
A series of papers point to the virus evolving in animals before being transmitted to humans, in the same way as all other previously discovered coronaviruses.
The first study, published in Scientific Reports, showed some 47,000 wild animals from 38 species were sold across four markets in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019.
The authors, including Dr Chris Newman, an evolutionary ecologist at Oxford University, claimed the evidence showed the conditions for animal-to-human transmission were in place in Wuhan.
But they acknowledged there was no proof Sars-CoV-2 was present or originated in any of these animals.
A joint World Health Organization-China investigation also concluded it was ‘very likely’ the virus jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal.
And a June 2022 report by the WHO sets out that Covid most likely originated in bats before infecting humans.